Last time we spoke about rapport – its importance and how it helps you to get on with your customers. It is always true that you will be more likely to sell something to people you get on with than those you don’t. But good rapport won’t, on its own, do the job. 


I remember, years ago I was working for a travel agency in the City of London. In those days things were a bit more casual than they are today and it was quite common for sales representatives from airlines and the like to pop in around lunchtime and we would quickly find ourselves in the pub – usually the Jamaica or Simpson’s (both still there). On one occasion I went in with an airline representative and met an agency friend of mine who was talking to a stranger whom he introduced to me as Ted, the representative of a stationery company, who proved to be an amiable chap and we spent a pleasant lunchtime talking of the affairs of the day. Suddenly my agency friend looked at his watch, made his excuses, and rushed off. I stayed for a while chatting to Ted before I went back to my business of trying to persuade the girls from the local banks to book their Sky Tours holidays to the Costa Brava. A day or two later I met my agency friend again and asked him why he had had to rush off when we were having such a good time. “Oh”, he said, “I always like talking to Ted but I suddenly remembered that I had an appointment with a man from a stationery firm who keeps selling me things." I said nothing but it made me think – in spite of his good rapport with Ted, when it came to buying his stationery, he used another representative’s organisation.

Never forget what your job is

No matter what it says in your job description, or what you tell your friends you do, your job is to sell things. I remember very well an old training video I used to use and one of the characters in it, playing a travel agent, said, “I’m not a salesman – I book holidays for people!" But as the video went on to point out, if your customers buy things then you sell them – and that makes you a salesperson. Poor old Ted had forgotten that selling was his job and I often wonder what happened to him – because his company surely couldn’t have gone on paying him just to be good friends with his customers.

If you don’t know what they want, then you can’t sell them what they need

In one of my very first jobs – before I started in the travel business – I was talking to a colleague and the topic of our careers came up. “You want to go and see old Grimsdyke” he said, “He runs the sales team and you’d do well in selling – you could talk the hind legs off a donkey.” Well I did talk to Mr Grimsdyke but never joined his sales team because I left that firm and started work in that travel agency in the City. But my old colleague’s words stuck with me and, for quite some time, I truly believed that salespeople needed the gift of the gab, and that the more you talked the better you would be at selling. Fortunately my boss decided to send me on a sales techniques course and I quickly learnt that both my erstwhile colleague and I were quite wrong. It’s not a big mouth that salespeople need – it’s big ears. Listening is probably the most important skill that any salesperson can learn. Indeed, as one good salesman once told me, “You’ll never learn anything by talking.”

Keep your mouth shut

We all love to talk – to tell others about our experiences and to share our knowledge and so it’s very easy, when someone comes in and asks about some travel product, to interrupt as soon as we think we know what our customer needs and start chatting about it – but that’s never a good thing. I remember, when my job used to take me around retail travel agencies, listening to one customer interaction as I waited to see the manager. “I’m looking for flights over Christmas…” he started. “Sorry”, interrupted the consultant, “all the cheap charter flights are gone – they’ve been booked solid for weeks.” (This was, of course, long before the advent of the no-frills carriers and charters were the only way of getting a low-cost flight). The customer thanked her and walked out and the consultant turned to deal with the next enquirer. But I wondered to myself, how did she know the customer wanted a cheap flight? Just because most of her customers wanted cheap flights, that didn’t mean they all did. And, as it happened, when I arrived at my next call I saw that man again – deep in conversation with a consultant and she was making a booking. I couldn’t see what it was but I could see that she had four BOAC tickets in front of her that she was issuing. (For the benefit of younger readers, back then BOAC was Britain’s long-haul carrier – and never sold cheap tickets).

Encourage and listen

Of course, customers will all be different but it’s a fair bet that most of them will need little prompting to talk about what they want – but it’s important to realise that, although they know what they want, they don’t know what information you need. So you must guide the conversation by asking the right kinds of questions. Never assume that your customer knows about the travel products you have available – you would be amazed by how little most people know about the travel industry. If you need any proof, just ask around the next time you’re with some non-travel people – ask them, say, to name as many airlines as they can. We know there are hundreds but you can be quite sure that most people won’t be able to name more than half a dozen.

Question, questions, questions

Every sales course will tell you the importance of asking questions, but what many fail to tell you is that the order in which you ask the questions can be as important as the questions themselves. It’s also important to understand that the way that customers come out with information will be the way that they perceive to be important – which is not necessarily the information that you need – or not at that time, anyway. Asking questions allows you to take control of the conversation and to make sure you find out the things that you need to know before you can make any kind of booking at all.

Start with the easy ones first

It’s not surprising that the first question that most consultants ask when a customer comes in and says, “I want a holiday” is, “OK, where do you want to go to?” And the frequent answer is, “Oh, I don’t know – anywhere cheap.” And a consultant’s common response to that is,“Well, here are some brochures, why don’t you take a look through them and come back when you find something you like.” And why does that happen? Simply because, as I wrote earlier, most people have very little idea of the kinds of products you have available. The question “where?” is a very tricky one for many people. So don’t ask it. Start with the easy ones. And we’ll talk about those next time.

For more information about this, or any other aspect of training, contact Richard English on 01403-710371 or email

twn Are you sure that you want to switch to desktop version?